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Full text of "A sermon occasioned by the destruction of Pennsylvania hall, and delivered the Lord's day following, May 20, 1838, in the First Congregational Unitarian church"

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Acts v. 38, 39. If this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to 
nought: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it. 

I RISE to address you this morning, brethren and friends, 
under a peculiar sense of duty, and with pain and sorrow. 
For, were it not for the state of feeling which the occurrences 
of the past week have disclosed, I could not have believed that 
there existed among the intelligent and well informed por- 
tions of this community such a deep and wide insensibility, I 
say not only to the iniquity, but to the utter absurdity of at- 
tempting to put down obnoxious sentiments by popular vio- 
lence. It is true, similar outrages have been perpetrated, 
within a few years, in other parts of our country, and they 
awakened but little feeling here. And the reason, I supposed, 
v\^as, that they happened at a distance, beyond the immediate 
circle of our observation and sympathy. But now the evil 
has come close to us — to our very doors. The whole city 
has been illuminated by the glare of the incendiary's torch. 
And what is the state of the public mind ? What is the tone 
of sentiment almost universally expressed.'' Why, with a few 
faint professions of regret at the manner in which that Hall 
has been destroyed, are mingled words of hearty satisfaction 
and triumph over its ruins. " We are sorry that it was done 
in such a way, but we are glad it is done." This is what we 
hear on all sides. And this disposition to overlook the cha- 

racter and tendency of the means for the sake of the end, to 
justify a misguided and lawless multitude, to contemplate acts 
of popular violence, without alarm, and even with satisfaction, 
this false and ignorant reliance upon brute force, in conflict 
with opinion, is by far the most alarming circumstance of the 
recent outrage. My friends and fellow citizens cannot know 
what a brink they are approaching, what a doctrine they are 
sanctioning, to what scenes of despotism and anarchy the pre- 
sent state of public sentiment, if not speedily and thoroughly 
corrected, must lead. Our acquiescence in such disorderly 
and violent methods, is a virtual rejection of all Law, and 
a surrender of life, person, property, and every precious 
right of the individual, to a wild irregular authority, subject 
to the blindest impulses, to the most savage delusions, that 
will rule us with a rod of iron, destroying every feeling of 
security, and extinguishing among us the last spark of per- 
sonal freedom. 

It is melancholy and discouraging to observe how very 
vague and imperfect, in this boasted nineteenth century, mens' 
notions are of freedom of thought and speech. In every age, 
in almost every year since the reformation, the world has re- 
sounded with eloquent appeals in behalf of civil and religious 
liberty. The doctrine of mental freedom has been powerfully 
set forth in words, if that were all. But it has almost always 
turned out at last, that the zealous advocates of freedom of 
mind, have contended, not for the sake of the great principles 
of liberty in all their length and breadth, but in order to 
secure a hearing for themselves, for their own private opi- 
nions; and when this end has been accomplished, their ardour 
in the cause of freedom has vanished, and they have been 
as willing as their predecessors to impose restrictions upon 
thought and speech. They have sought freedom not for the 
mind itself, not as the inherent and inalienable right of the 
mind, but only for their own private convictions. So often 
has this been the case, that now-a-days, whenever an indivi- 
dual pleads for liberty, for the right of free discussion, it is in- 

stantly inferred that he is the partisan of certain obnoxious 
sentiments; that he speaks to subserve the particular interests 
of some sect or party, otherwise he would not be so zealous 
in the cause of human rights, and every thing like a pure love 
of liberty, for liberty's sake, apart from the promotion of any 
peculiar opinions, is so very rare. I am aware, that you will 
suppose, now, that I am speaking in especial behalf of those 
whose doctrines and measures have occasioned these disgrace- 
ful and most alarming acts of violence. But, if I know my- 
self, this is not my present purpose. Whether the Aboli- 
tionists are right or wrong, is, comparatively speaking, a small 
question now. Your dearest liberties, the security of your 
property and your lives, and, above all, your sacred rights as 
the intelligent and accountal)le creatures of God, whose pi'ivi- 
lege and whose duty it is to think and speak each for himself, 
upon his own sure and incommunicable I'esponsibility; these 
have been struck at and violated in their persons, and it is in 
behalf of these, our common liberties, that I would now speak. 
To the general insensibility to this gross violation, I would 
awaken your most earnest attention. 

I know what plea is urged in justification of this insensi- 
bility. It is said, that the individuals, who assembled in that 
Hall, had defied public opinion, and outraged public feeling by 
their lan2;uao;e and their measures. Let it be granted for a 
moment, that they had done so, that a fair case existed for the 
strong expression of the public disapprobation. Only the 
more urgent was the necessity, that the offended sense of the 
community should be vindicated in no violent or irregular 
way. If the feeling which kindled that conflagration was 
right, the more important was it that it should I)e rightly ex- 
pressed. If, because the impulse, from which the populace 
acted, was true and justifiable, you justify also the acts to 
which that impulse prompted, you embolden the people to 
take the law into their own hands in other and more ques- 
tionable cases. You give currency and sanction to the idea, 
not only that they are to decide, as they may and must, what 


is to be permitted and what forbidden, but that the process by 
which error and falsehood are to be suppressed, is also a mat- 
ter for their extemporaneous decision. Let it be admitted, 
that the end they have accomplished was good, and in consid- 
eration of that, that the method also was right, you instantly 
make them your lawgivers and magistrates, and they will be 
swift and terrible to discharge the office to which you have 
virtually appointed them. A government of laws, wisely 
framed, extensively promulgated, and regularly administered, 
is in fact disclaimed. It becomes obsolete, and instead there- 
of, we have the popular will erected into a supreme and sum- 
mary tribunal, and what a fearful form of society have we 
then ! It is no form of society at all, but a chaos. The popu- 
lar mind must be educated up to a point far beyond what the 
world has yet witnessed, it must be baptized into the spirit of 
justice and virtue, before it will cease to be liable to the 
grossest mistakes and delusions, to the most rash and bloody- 
minded impulses, hurrying it away to outrages which the 
next moment it will deplore and weep over in vain. As 
things are, we see every day how wofully misinformed the 
public may be, what baseless rumours are credited and acted 
upon as facts. How often has it happened in the history of 
the world, that the multitude, in a moment of false excite- 
ment, have been driven to shed the blood of their best friends 
and benefactors. The very next hour their eyes have been 
opened, and the objects of their fatal violence have become 
the objects of their greatest veneration. But they cannot re- 
trieve what they have done. They can only canonize the 
martyr, and pile up blocks of marble to his memory. I might 
refer to many instances and most illustrious ones, but I will 
mention only one, one that to us, my brethren, should be 
peculiarly significant. A more kindly sympathy with hu- 
manity, a more ardent desire for its well-being never dwelt in 
a human bosom than that which glowed in the heart of Priest- 
ley. But by a popular delusion, his dwelling, with the fruits 
of years of intellectual labour, was given to the flames, and 
he was driven from his native land. 

Such have heen the results when the people, deserting their 
constituted authorities and established laws, have been given 
over to their own wild rule. It is worse, a thousand times 
worse, than a despotism: for the character and policy of a 
despot may come to be known, and his subjects may conduct 
themselves accordingly. The most capricious tyrant has a 
law, even in his caprices, to which those who are under him 
may learn, in time, to conform themselves. But who shall 
undertake to tell when and in what direction the excited pas- 
sions of a misinformed populace may be urged to acts of 
violence and blood? We know not how the most innocent 
word uttered, here or elsewhere, in public or private, may be 
caught up, and misinterpreted, and perverted, and magnified, 
until it draws down upon our defenceless heads, the popular 
indignation. All feeling of security, in such a state of things, 
must vanish. All personal freedom of thought and speech 
will be given to the winds. Even silence and caution will 
become suspicious, and our spirits must be abject indeed, if 
life does not become utterly worthless. In fact, men have 
never yet been able to endure such a condition of society for 
any length of time. They have hailed the appearance of 
any one man who would rule them, according to his own sel- 
fish and ambitious will, as a blessing ; they have fled to the 
shadow of the despot's throne as a refuge from themselves. 
Things among us have not come to this pass yet ; but if there 
is any one indication of a downward tendency in this people 
from the lofty elevation of freedom, upon which they have 
hitherto proudly stood among the nations, it is the insensi- 
bility to the value and authority of the established laws, which 
has been disclosed upon more than one recent occasion. Poli- 
tical and religious subjects lie close to the interests and passions 
of the people; and the temples of religion, and your temples of 
wealth, may be wrapt in flames, which no man shall dare to 
lift a finger to quench. 

We make our boast, in the fair fabric of society, which has 
been reared on these shores — and it is fair and beautiful — but 


we are apt to think that it cannot he overthrown: to look for 
its continuance out of ourselves. Herein is the fatal delusion. 
Precious blood has been spilt in building up this nation ; and 
noble men have toiled to make it what it is. But not for 
these — not for these, not for any reason on earth, or in heaven, 
will God violate his own laws, and continue a free form of 
government to those who have lost a free spirit. No man 
can estimate the loss which we are already suffering in the 
respect and sympathy of the world at large. We are furnish- 
ing despotism with arguments, most potent arguments, against 
us ; and in multitudes of minds, on the other side of the ocean, 
the capacity of man for self-government, must continue still 
longer questionable. In the holy name of Freedom, if the 
word retains any meaning for you, rally to recall your depart- 
ing honours. Awake from your Mse security. If there be 
no other way, organize yourselves into associations for the 
defence of the laws ; and resolutely determine to secure their 
full protection to the acknowledged rights of thought and 
speech, even when in the exercise of these rights, individuals 
have been led to form and express opinions most repugnant 
to our own. 

It seems to be thought by some, that these cruel and ruth- 
less outbursts of popular feeling are justifiable, inasmuch as 
extravagant, fanatical and disorganizing sentiments ought to 
be put down at once, and they can be put down in no other 
way. Christianity abhors the thought. Her doctrine is, " Re- 
sist not evil with evil : but overcome evil with good ;" and 
the doctrine is founded in the nature of things; force never 
was, it never can be, an argument against opinion. To seek 
to frighten and silence a man, is to take the surest way to in- 
crease his confidence in the correctness of his convictions: 
for it convinces him that you have nothing in reason to ad- 
vance against them. Besides, extremes invariably and inevi- 
tably produce extremes. When, instead of replying to a 
man's arguments, you put a torch to his house, or threaten 
his person with violence, you awaken in him a keen sense of 


injustice ; and tliis inflames his mind, and its action is likely 
to become heated and diseased; and since he can show his 
scorn of you in no other way, he repays your violence with 
a more violent and unguarded expression of his opinions. 
You awaken in him a spirit which you may break, but it will 
not bend. You do your best to drive it into all sorts of 

If he is right, and he feels that he is right, you are taking 
the surest method to inspire him with a superhuman, divine 
strength. As you wound his body, and annoy his outward 
condition, you animate the soul that is in him ; and from the 
injustice and oppression around him, he turns to the great and 
good of the past, and associates himself in imagination with 
them, and joins himself to the noble company of the apostles 
and martyrs. From the violence of the world he appeals to 
the justice of heaven, and justly accounts his sufierings as the 
appointments of God, whereby God is to be served and glo- 
rified ; and you find at last, that you have aroused the holiest 
and mightiest feeling of the soul ; that when you thought to 
silence, and crush, and annihilate, you have kindled an un- 
quenchable flame, that cannot fail to spread and catch: so close 
and strong are the sympathies that bind man to man. Hence 
has arisen the proverb, " the blood of the martyrs is the seed 
of the church." And hence too, appears the glaring absurdity 
of thinking to suppress obnoxious opinions by violence. The 
persecuted, if they have the feelings, the spirit of men, have 
all that spirit awakened within them by persecution, and 
their sufferings, their privations, and their blood, speak trum- 
pet-tongued to the hearts of others, and muster around them 
a host of defenders and friends. 

Even if their opinions are erroneous and wild, the brute 
force with which they are met only tends, as I have said, to 
exasperate and drive them into still greater extravagances. It 
is not to be doubted, that the means, which have been taken 
to suppress thought, have tended directly and powerfully to 
produce the most monstrous errors. Intimidate, denounce, 
and persecute, and in a mere spirit of defiance men will per- 



sist ill thinking for themselves, and strive to irritate and shock 
you by the boldness of their thoughts. You will only pro- 
voke them to embrace and advance error in mere scorn of 
your efforts to silence them. There is in the heart, a con- 
sciousness of its own inborn freedom, which can never be 
annihilated; (blessed be God that it cannot!) and which, if 
not freely tolerated, will break forth in the wildest forms. It 
is in vain for us to shut our eyes to these facts in the human 
constitution, to which all history bears witness. " There is a 
spirit in man, and the inspiration of God hath given him un- 
derstanding ;" and he can never wholly cease to feel its 
sacredness, and its rights ; and certainly one way to make 
him feel them the most deeply is, to deny him the liberty of 
thought. The torch with which you menace him awakens 
him from the sleep of the soul, and shines into the depths of 
his own nature ; and he is aroused to a sense of his own 
power as a moral and intellectual being. Men, who never 
thought before, will begin to exercise the divine right the in- 
stant you undertake to question it; and the more violent you 
are, the more earnest and vehement will they become. They 
will start the most extravagant conclusions sooner than they 
will permit it to be doubted whether they have a right to 
think at all. 

On the other hand, acknowledge freely and fully the free- 
dom of the mind, and the right of every one to form and 
express his own serious opinions. Let the least and lowest be 
fully protected in the exercise of this right, and you will take 
away one main inducement to extravagance and fanaticism. 
Then there will be no laurels to l)e gained, no reputation for 
courage and boldness to be won, in the formation and ex- 
pression of opinions, when it is insisted that every man may, 
and every man ought to think for himself; that he does no 
more than his simple, inevitable duty, when he avows his own 
honest convictions, no matter how much they vary from those 
of others. Then men will think, not for the sake of defy- 
ing your opposition, and braving the authority you usurp over 
them, but for the sake of truth, to discover and know what is 


true and right in opinion and conduct. In a word, it is the 
attempts that have been made to impede the action of the 
mind, to throw restrictions and discouragements in the way 
of its growth, that have forced it out into numberless and 
unseemly excesses. On the contrary, take off all chains, seek 
not to use intimidation and force, let it be encircled by the 
atmosphere and the light of freedom, and it will grow up in 
truth and strength. 

I pray you, my hearers, give heed to these things, and let 
them not be mere speculations, but the lights that guide and 
regulate us in our speech, our judgments, and our conduct. 
Frown upon the slightest disposition to fetter the freedom of 
the mind, for in that is our life and our salvation. No matter 
how opposite to yours another man's opinions may be, if it 
be attempted to put him to silence by fear and foixe; make 
his case your own, instantly, I beseech you, and feel that your 
dearest right may be violated in him. As you believe him to 
be in error, as you desire his conversion, treat him with all 
possible fairness. Reverence the sacredness of your own free- 
dom in him; and do not, by violence, drive him still farther 
into error, and render his return hopeless. We, of this land, are 
placed in new and unprecedented circumstances. We stand 
in peculiar and direct relation to the public weal. Every man 
here is a component part of the public power, and we have a 
social duty to discharge that we cannot throw off. Every 
thing depends upon univei'sal education, upon every man's 
studying, understanding, and obeying the great principles of 
human liberty, upon which the general welfare rests. Is it 
your right? Nay, it is your imperative and solemn duty to 
judge and decide for yourselves on all questions of public in- 
terest. Neglect this duty, and you put in peril the prospects 
of your children, and the liberties of the country, and the best 
hopes of the world are betrayed. Or if we will not think 
for ourselves, let us at least not hinder others in the discharge 
of this great obligation. 


1 pray God to sanctify recent events to our warning and 
instruction, to make the light of the late conflagrations a me- 
mento and a beacon, startling us from our slumbers, and creat- 
ing in us a new and governing sense of our rights and our 
duties. There are thousands throughout this land upon whom 
it will have this effect. You may allow one house to burn 
while all the surrounding edifices are preserved. But the 
moral flame which has been kindled cannot be so restricted 
and confined. Men are bound together by imperishable 
sympathies. " As in water, face answereth to face, so does 
the heart of man to man." We are "like tuned strings, 
strike one string, and all strings will begin sounding." May 
God make us true to our human sympathies, to His ever- 
lasting law, and to that spark of his own divinity, that life 
within us, which is his richest gift, and whose birthright is 
freedom ! 


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